Banking the Covid Dividend
The title of this article may strike you as curious or even crass given the ongoing turmoil and distress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. I choose the title carefully to underscore the subtle changes directors within all boardrooms have been experiencing since March 2020. If you are a boardroom leader or influencer, my aim through this four-minute read is to convince you of the short window of opportunity you have to make lasting gains in your board’s interpersonal dynamics. These gains directly translate into business performance. In this context, there is indeed a tangible Covid dividend to be banked within boardrooms throughout the UK.
Whether by foresight or serendipity, your organisation may be one of the financial winners from Covid-19, whereby the pandemic has acted as the pivot for a much brighter future. For some organisations, the crisis has accelerated the tail phase of their declining business model. Other relevant and worthy organisations have just been unlucky.
During times of significant stress, teams of all kinds either pull together or pull apart. Typically, teams pull together provided they successfully win through the adversity as a group. We know this phenomenon as Social Cohesion. The same is true for boards. As a board member, you will have noticed a marked change in the behaviours and dynamics within your boardroom as the pandemic has progressed. Your previously cohesive board may be enjoying deeper degrees of
connectedness and support than ever before. Fissures that previously resided at, or just below, the surface may have sunk out of view completely, or perhaps divisions are now more apparent than ever before.
Psychological studies into this phenomenon suggest that, during times of collective stress, there is a much deeper need in all of us for social connectedness, as a defensive way to counteract excessive feelings of vulnerability. The more acute and sustained the stress – such as the continuous threat to life experienced by a group of soldiers during wartime – the deeper and longer lasting the bond. Conversely, studies in this area also show that overt feelings of personal empowerment and being in control often lead to less cohesive or even factious behaviours.
Social distancing aside, the Covid-19 pandemic has given boardrooms a taste of what greater social connectedness can feel like, although nowhere to the degree experienced by soldiers on a battlefield. Remember the rush of community support during the early stages of the pandemic? While these activities are hugely positive and bring tangible relief to many, the collective togetherness they engender are temporary and unsustainable because any direct personal threat levels we feel at the time are, most likely, absent or nominal at worst.
The highly simplified illustration in Figure 1 elucidates the variety of recent boardroom experiences as the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed. It is important to recognise that the stronger behaviours you have been enjoying (or enduring) in recent months are largely temporary. They will revert to something near their previous state as the stressor – in this case the effects of Covid-19 - lessens over time.
If curve A represents your experience, the temporary nature will be greeted with profound relief! But you might reflect on how Covid-19 amplified or accelerated something that needed attention anyway.
If you are in camps B, C or D, pause to savour and appreciate the new level of bonding while you can – it is transient unless you act to bank the gains made.
Boardroom cohesion is crucial for consistently high-quality decision-making, and the kind of high-performance dynamics that underpin the most effective supervision. Lasting cohesion does not happen by chance. It is crafted and engineered. It is based on the application of human performance knowhow and embedded within evolved ways of working.
“Boardroom cohesion is crucial for consistently high-quality decision-making…”
We all know what genuine cohesion feels like. Entirely new knowledge is created within the group, trust is high and hard messages are embraced if not welcomed. I am not referring to best governance practices. Best practice is a weak substitute for genuine cohesion. While best practice is mere engineering by rules, cohesion is the intangible reward from purposeful investment in relationships.
So how do boardroom leaders go about permanently banking the Covid dividend?
Actively reflect on your experience
Listen and learn - notice and explore what was done differently - and be curious as to who led the change. Reflective practice means a deep dive into what you did, how you did it and what outcomes (both helpful and unhelpful) emerged from this interruption to business as usual.
Psychological safety is the gateway
Psychological safety grows from experiencing consistently positive outcomes through habitual social risk-taking. It is the foundation of trust. Without this, more evolved ways of working in the boardroom are not possible. How and when has this appeared amongst your board members? Be specific about the behavioural changes that led to this psychological experience of trust and safety (or its opposite).
Get expert help and design cohesion into your board
Boards will need external human performance expertise to make the most of the Covid-19 dividend, and it is worth investing in the right knowhow.
Genuine cohesion requires social contracting based on shared education and understanding. But social contracting is merely a framework to support enhanced ways of working. Sustained and escalating social risk-taking within the boardroom is needed, and that is an uncomfortable journey to start - especially without expert help!
Prioritise board time
I challenge you to set aside 25% of your strategy away time each year to build this process. For most boards that means half a day each year. This is the level of commitment needed to make real gains and, significantly, the collective mindset established through such discussions leads naturally to the best kind of strategy debates.
“Best practice is a weak substitute for genuine cohesion”
I hope to have convinced you that you currently have an unprecedented opportunity to evolve your board’s dynamics which will pay off financially both in the near and longer terms. If you already have access to experts with the necessary knowhow, please do speak with them soon.
Neil Tsappis LLM FCG FRSA
With acknowlegement to Dr Tamara Russell MSc PhD DClinPsy FRSA